Every Friday night, from Texas to North Carolina, high school football
fans are standing to say the Lord's Prayer. I won't be standing with
them. But I know where they're coming from.
My fellow Southerners have found yet another way to honor God, defy the
United States Supreme Court, and thumb their noses at the ACLU. Those
prayers mark a few fine moments of civil disobedience for a culture
that's been mocked in every way and still--pig-headed and wrong-minded
as it may be--feels pretty good about itself.
People outside and some people inside the South think this is just
another example of white, bigoted, Jesus-crazed Southerners running
roughshod over the rights of minorities. That's understandable because
Christian preachers and church folk are leading the effort, and they
aren't real concerned about other religions.
But many of the folks standing to pray, and ready to get into a fist
fight over their right to do so, don't go to church much and think about
God just about as often as the rest of the country does, which is to
say, mainly when they're in some bad trouble. They don't have anything
against any other religion.
They're standing to pray because it's proper. It is proper to
acknowledge God in a traditional way when a crowd gets together. It is
not proper, it is unseemly even, to raise a ruckus about that. They're
not worried about affronting Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists. Most of them
probably don't even know any Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists. They're worried
about affronting God, whom they do know--or oughta.
At least that's how many people in the South feel about it. From their
seat in the bleachers, it looks as if people who remember what's proper
and what's not are the minority, and somebody needs to stand up for
It's hard for anybody outside the South to understand how "being
proper" is tied to Southern identity. It's such a quaint idea. But
Southerners are generally conservative people. They like to keep to the
The men in my family, most of whom wouldn't begin to know how to thump
a Bible, don't drink in front of their children because their daddies
and granddaddies didn't. They don't curse in front of women and will
fall all over themselves opening doors for women for the same reason.
They'll fight you for their right to do that, too. Those things define
who they are in the face of a society that's changing too fast and
championing a lot of ideas that look dangerous to them.
An Alabama judge has become a folk hero for posting the Ten
Commandments in his courtroom. I trust nobody thinks that's because
people in Alabama obey the Ten Commandments any more faithfully than the
rest of the country. Even Alabamans don't claim that.
The judge is a hero because he's speaking out for people who feel
Images of Southern racism and riots and policeman beating up civil
right marchers are branded into the national brain. They define Southern
culture and damn it as far as the rest of the country is concerned. Like
any other despised minority, Southerners kick against being stereotyped
and demeaned. The kind of faith on display in the football prayer
movement is their most well-publicized brand of religion--loud, often
combative, and sometimes fiercely simple-minded. It is one of the few
ways they can still be heard.
I'm not saying the football prayer movement will be contained in the
South. I bet it's going to spread at least to the Midwest and maybe the
West. But the people who stand up and pray are going to be a lot like
the Southerners. They're folks who feel as though they have a pretty
good handle on what's moral and right, and they're pretty darn tired of
having a culture they don't approve of dictate what they can do.
The football prayer movement is about religion in much the same way
that the conflict in Northern Ireland is about whether you're Protestant
or Catholic. In the South and in Northern Ireland, religion runs deep.
But the conflict is about something even deeper.
It's about identity. Any time one culture tells another that it must
give up the rituals and customs that define it, there's going to be a
In the streets. Or in the courts. Or in the bleachers.